|Regions with significant populations|
|Myanmar (Rakhine State), Bangladesh, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Indonesia, India|
|Islam by country|
The Rohingya people (//, //, //, or //), are Muslim Indo-Aryan peoples from the Rakhine State, Myanmar. According to Rohingyas and some scholars, they are indigenous to Rakhine State, while other historians claim that they migrated to Myanmar from Bengal primarily during the period of British rule in Burma, and to a lesser extent, following Burmese independence in 1948 and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. International media and human rights organizations have often described Rohingyas as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, while origin of that term with relation to the United Nations is still unclear.
Muslims have settled in Rakhine State (also known as Arakan) since the 16th century, although the number of Muslim settlers before British rule is unclear. After the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826, the British annexed Arakan and encouraged migrations from Bengal to work as farm laborers. The Muslim population may have constituted 5% of Arakan's population by 1869, although estimates for earlier years give higher numbers. Successive British censuses of 1872 and 1911 recorded an increase in Muslim population from 58,255 to 178,647 in Akyab District. During World War II, the Arakan massacres in 1942 involved communal violence between British-armed V Force Rohingya recruits and Buddhist Rakhine people and the region became increasingly ethnically polarized. After World War II, the mujahideen rebellion began in 1947 as a separatist movement and continued to the 1960s. The rebellion left enduring mistrust and hostilities in both Muslim and Buddhist communities. In 1982, General Ne Win's government enacted the Burmese nationality law, which denied Rohingya citizenship. Since the 1990s, the term "Rohingya" has increased in usage among Rohingya communities.
As of 2013, about 1.3 million Rohingyas live in Myanmar. They reside mainly in the northern Rakhine townships, where they form 80–98% of the population. Many Rohingyas have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh and to areas along the border with Thailand. Large scale Rohingya migration to the Pakistani city of Karachi has made Karachi one of the largest population centres of Rohingyas after Myanmar. More than 100,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons, not allowed by authorities to leave. Rohingyas have received international attention in the wake of 2012 Rakhine State riots, and more recently because of their attempted migration throughout Southeast Asia in the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis.
The Rohingya refer to themselves as Ruáingga /ɾuájŋɡa/. In the dominant languages of the region, they are known as rui hang gya (following the MLCTS) in Burmese: ရိုဟင်ဂျာ /ɹòhɪ̀ɴd͡ʑà/ and Rohingga in Bengali: রোহিঙ্গা /ɹohiŋɡa/.
Jacques P. Leider states that in precolonial sources, the term Rohingya, in the form of Rooinga appears only once in a text written by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton. In his 1799 article "A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire", Hamilton stated: "I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan." The word Rohingya means "inhabitant of Rohang", which was the early Muslim name for Arakan.
After riots in 2012, academic authors used the term Rohingya to refer to the Muslim community in northern Rakhine. Professor Andrew Selth of Griffith University for example, uses "Rohingya" but states "These are Bengali Muslims who live in Arakan State...most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries." Among the overseas Rohingya community, the term has been gaining popularity since the 1990s, though a considerable portion of Muslims in northern Rakhine are unfamiliar with the term and prefer to use alternatives.
Although Muslim settlements have existed for a long time in Arakan, the original settlers before the British rule are generally assumed to be few. After four decades of British rule in 1869, Muslim settlers reached 5% of Arakan's population. The number steadily increased until World War II.
Kingdom of Mrauk U
Early evidence of Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to the time of Min Saw Mon (1430–1434) of the Kingdom of Mrauk U. After 24 years of exile in Bengal, he regained control of the Arakanese throne in 1430 with military assistance from the Bengal Sultanate. The Bengalis who came with him formed their own settlements in the region.
Min Saw Mon ceded some territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognised his sovereignty over the areas. In recognition of his kingdom's vassal status, the kings of Arakan received Islamic titles and used the Bengali gold dinar within the kingdom. Min Saw Mon minted his own coins with the Burmese alphabet on one side and the Persian alphabet on the other.
Arakan's vassalage to Bengal was brief. After Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah's death in 1433, Narameikhla's successors invaded Bengal and occupied Ramu in 1437 and Chittagong in 1459. Arakan would hold Chittagong until 1666.
Even after gaining independence from the Sultans of Bengal, the Arakanese kings continued the custom of maintaining Muslim titles. The Buddhist kings compared themselves to Sultans and fashioned themselves after Mughal rulers. They also continued to employ Muslims in prestigious positions within the royal administration. The Bengali Muslim population increased in the 17th century, as they were employed in a variety of workforces in Arakan. Some of them worked as Bengali, Persian and Arabic scribes in the Arakanese courts, which, despite remaining Buddhist, adopted Islamic fashions from the neighbouring Bengal Sultanate. The Kamein, who are regarded as one of the official ethnic groups of Myanmar, are descended from these Muslims. Also during the 17th century, tens of thousands of Bengali Muslims were captured by Arakanese raiders—with some serving in the king's army, others sold as slaves and others forced to settle in Arakan.
Following the Konbaung Dynasty's conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 Rakhine people fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal in 1799 to escape persecution by the Bamar and to seek protection from the British Raj. The Bamar executed thousands of Rakhine men and deported a considerable portion of the Rakhine population to central Burma, leaving Arakan as a scarcely populated area by the time the British occupied it.
According to an article on the "Burma Empire" published by the British Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1799, "the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan", "call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan." However, according to Derek Tokin, Hamilton no longer used the term to refer to the Muslims in Arakan in his later publications. Sir Henry Yule saw many Muslims serving as eunuchs in Konbaung while on a diplomatic mission there.
British colonial rule
British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers. The East India Company extended the Bengal Presidency to Arakan. There was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work.
The British census of 1872 reported 58,255 Muslims in Akyab District. By 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647. The waves of migration were primarily due to the requirement of cheap labour from British India to work in the paddy fields. Immigrants from Bengal, mainly from the Chittagong region, "moved en masse into western townships of Arakan". To be sure, Indian immigration to Burma was a nationwide phenomenon, not just restricted to Arakan.
Historian Thant Myint-U writes: "At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year." By then, in most of the largest cities in Burma, Yangon, Sittwe, Pathein and Mawlamyine, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The Burmese under the British rule felt helpless, and reacted with a "racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear."
The impact of immigration was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities, alert to the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslims, formed a special Investigation Commission led by James Ester and Tin Tut to study the issue of Muslim immigration into the Arakan. The commission recommended securing the border; however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.
World War II Japanese occupation and inter-communal violence
During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded British-controlled Burma. The British forces retreated and in the power vacuum left behind, considerable inter communal violence erupted between Arakanese and Muslim villagers. The British armed Muslims in northern Arakan in order to create a buffer zone that would protect the region from a Japanese invasion when they retreated and to counteract the largely pro-Japanese ethnic Rakhines. The period also witnessed violence between groups loyal to the British and the Burmese nationalists.
Aye Chan, a historian at the Kanda University, has written that as a consequence of acquiring arms from the British during World War II, Rohingyas tried to destroy the Arakanese villages instead of resisting the Japanese. In March 1942, Rohingyas from northern Arakan killed around 20,000 Arakanese. In return, around 5,000 Muslims in the Minbya and Mrauk-U Townships were killed by Rakhines and Red Karens.
As in the rest of Burma, the Japanese committed acts of rape, murder and torture against Muslims in Arakan. During this period, some 22,000 Muslims in Arakan were believed to have crossed the border into Bengal, then part of British India, to escape the violence. The exodus was not restricted to Muslims in Arakan. Thousands of Burmese Indians, Anglo-Burmese and British who settled during colonial period emigrated en masse to India.
To facilitate their reentry into Burma, British formed Volunteer Forces with Rohingya. Over the three years during which the Allies and Japanese fought over the Mayu peninsula, the Rohingya recruits of the V-Force, engaged in a campaign against Arakanese communities, using weapons provided by V-Force. According to the secretary of British governor, the V Force, instead of fighting the Japanese, destroyed Buddhist monasteries, pagodas, and houses, and committed atrocities in northern Arakan.
During the Pakistan Movement in the 1940s, Rohingya Muslims in western Burma organized a separatist movement to merge the region into East Pakistan. Before the independence of Burma in January 1948, Muslim leaders from Arakan addressed themselves to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and asked his assistance in incorporating the Mayu region to Pakistan considering their religious affinity and geographical proximity with East Pakistan.
Two months later, the north Arakan Muslim League was founded in Akyab (modern Sittwe). It demanded annexation to Pakistan. The proposal was never materialized since it was reportedly turned down by Jinnah saying that he was not in a position to interfere into Burmese matters.
After Jinnah's refusal, Rohingya elders founded the Mujahid party as a jihad movement in northern Arakan in 1947. The aim of the Mujahid party was to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. By the 1950s, they began to use the term "Rohingya" which may be a continuation of the term Rooinga to establish a distinct identity and identify themselves as indigenous. They were much more active before the 1962 Burmese coup d'état by General Ne Win. Ne Win carried out military operations against them over a period of two decades. The prominent one was Operation King Dragon, which took place in 1978; as a result, many Muslims in the region fled to neighboring Bangladesh as refugees. In addition to Bangladesh, a large number of Rohingyas also migrated to Karachi, Pakistan.
Rohingya mujahideen are still active within the remote areas of Arakan.
Post-independence immigration and Bangladesh Liberation War
The numbers and the extent of post-independence immigration from Bangladesh are subject to controversy and debate. In a 1955 study published by Stanford University, the authors Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff write, "The post-war illegal immigration of Chittagonians into that area was on a vast scale, and in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung areas they replaced the Arakanese." The authors further argue that the term Rohingya, in the form of Rwangya, first appeared to distinguish settled population from newcomers: "The newcomers were called Mujahids (crusaders), in contrast to the Rwangya or settled Chittagonian population."
From 1971 to 1973, the Bangladesh Liberation War and its accompanying genocide saw an exodus of ten million Bengali refugees to neighboring countries. A large number of refugees settled in northern Rakhine and to a smaller extent in Chin State. In 1975, Bangladesh Ambassador to Burma, Khwaja Mohammed Kaiser admitted that there were upward of 500,000 trespassers in Arakan who Burma had some rights to eject and implored the Burmese authorities not to press the issue during political turmoils in Bangladesh.
From 1971 to 1978, a number of Rakhine monks and Buddhists staged hunger strikes in Sittwe to force the government to tackle immigration issues which they believed to be causing a demographic shift in the region. Ne Win's government requested UN to repatriate the war refugees and launched military operations which drove off around 200,000 people to Bangladesh. In 1978, the Bangladesh government protested against the Burmese government concerning "the expulsion by force of thousands of Burmese Muslim citizens to Bangladesh." The Burmese government responded that those expelled were Bangladesh citizens who had resided illegally in Burma. In July 1978, after intensive negotiations mediated by UN, Ne Win's government agreed to take back 200,000 refugees who settled in Arakan. In 1982, the Burmese government enacted the citizenship law and declared the "Bengalis" are foreigners.
There are widespread beliefs among Rakhine people that significant number of immigrants arrived even after the 1980s when the border was relatively unguarded. However, there is no documentation proof for these claims as the last census was conducted in 1983. Successive Burmese governments have fortified the border and built up border guard forces.
'Rohingya' movement (1990-present)
Since the 1990s, a new 'Rohingya' movement which is distinct from the 1950s armed rebellion has emerged. The new movement is characterized by lobbying internationally by overseas diaspora, establishing indigenous claims by Rohingya scholars, publicizing the term "Rohingya" and denying Bengali origins by Rohingya politicians.
Rohingya scholars have claimed that Rakhine was previously a Muslim state for a millennium, or that Muslims were king-makers of Rakhine kings for 350 years. They often traced the origin of Rohingyas to Arab seafarers. These claims have been rejected as "newly invented myths" in academic circles. Some Rohingya politicians have labelled Burmese and international historians as "Rakhine sympathizers" for rejecting the purported historical origins. Nonetheless, the term spreads with great success after the riots in 2012.
The movement has garnered sharp criticisms from ethnic Rakhines and Kamans, the latter of whom are a recognized Muslim ethnic group in Rakhine. Kaman leaders support citizenship for Muslims in northern Rakhine but believe that the new movement is aimed at achieving a self-administered area or Rohang State as a separate Muslim state carved out of Rakhine and condemn the movement.
Rakhines' views are more critical. Citing Bangladesh's overpopulation and density, Rakhines perceive the Rohingyas as "the vanguard of an unstoppable wave of people that will inevitably engulf Rakhine." However, for moderate Rohingyas, the aim may have been no more than to gain citizenship status. Moderate Rohingya politicians agree to compromise on the term Rohingya if citizenship is provided under an alternative identity that is neither "Bengali" nor "Rohingya". Various alternatives including "Rakhine Muslims", "Myanmar Muslims" or simply "Myanmar" have been proposed.
Burmese juntas (1990-2011)
The military junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century relied heavily on mixing Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism to bolster its rule, and, in the view of the US government, heavily discriminated against minorities like the Rohingyas and the Chinese people in Myanmar such as the Kokangs and Panthays. Some pro-democracy dissidents from Myanmar's ethnic Bamar majority do not consider the Rohingyas compatriots.
Successive Burmese governments have been accused of provoking riots against ethnic minorities like the Rohingyas and Chinese, although no evidence was produced. In 2009, a senior Burmese envoy to Hong Kong branded the Rohingyas "ugly as ogres" and a people that are alien to Myanmar.
2012-present: Rakhine State riots and refugee crisis
The 2012 Rakhine State riots were a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims who are majority in the northern Rakhine and ethnic Rakhines who are majority in the south. Before the riots, there were widespread and strongly held fears circulating among Buddhist Rakhines that they would soon become a minority in their ancestral state. The riots finally came after weeks of sectarian disputes including a gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingyas and killing of ten Burmese Muslims by Rakhines.
From both sides, whole villages were "decimated". According to the Burmese authorities, the violence, between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and up to 140,000 people have been displaced. The government has responded by imposing curfews and by deploying troops in the region. On 10 June 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing the military to participate in the administration of the region. Rohingya NGOs overseas have accused the Burmese army and police of targeting Rohingya Muslims through arrests and participating in violence.
However, an in-depth research conducted by the International Crisis Group shows that both communities are grateful for the protection provided by the military. A number of monks' organisations have taken measures to boycott NGOs which they believe helped only Rohingyas in the past decades even though Rakhines are equally poor. In July 2012, the Burmese Government did not include the Rohingya minority group in the census—classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982. About 140,000 Rohingya in Myanmar remain confined in IDP camps.
In 2015, to escape violence and persecution, thousands of Rohingyas migrated from Myanmar and Bangladesh, collectively dubbed as 'boat people' by international media, to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand by rickety boats via the waters of the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates about 25,000 people have been taken to boats from January to March in 2015. There are claims that around 100 people died in Indonesia, 200 in Malaysia, and 10 in Thailand during the journey. An estimated 3,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued or swum to shore and several thousand more are believed to remain trapped on boats at sea with little food or water. The crisis has been sparked by smugglers.
The following table shows the statistics of Muslim population in Arakan. Note that except for 2014 census, the data is for all Muslims in Rakhine. The data for Burmese 1802 census is taken from a book by J. S. Furnivall. The British censuses classified immigrants from Chittagong as Bengalis. There were a small number of immigrants from other parts of India. The 1941 census was lost during the war. The 1983 census conducted under the Ne Win's government omitted people in volatile regions. It is unclear how many were missed. British era censuses can be found at Digital Library of India.
Those who identify as Rohingyas typically reside in the northernmost townships of Arakan bordering Bangladesh where they form 80–98% of the population. A typical Rohingya family has four or five surviving children but the numbers up to twenty eight have been recorded in rare cases. According to David Price of Harvard University, Rohingyas have 37% more children between 0 and 9 years old than Myanmar's national average. As of 2014, about 1.3 million Rohingyas live in Myanmar and an estimated 1 million overseas. They form 40% of Rakhine State's population or 60% if overseas population is included.
The Rohingya language is part of the Indo-Aryan sub-branch of the greater Indo-European language family and is related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Myanmar. While both Rohingya and Chittagonian are related to Bengali, they are not mutually intelligible with the latter. Rohingyas do not speak Burmese, the lingua franca of Myanmar, and face problems in integration. Rohingya scholars have successfully written the Rohingya language in various scripts including the Arabic, Hanifi, Urdu, Roman, and Burmese alphabets, where Hanifi is a newly developed alphabet derived from Arabic with the addition of four characters from Latin and Burmese.
More recently, a Latin alphabet has been developed using all 26 English letters A to Z and two additional Latin letters Ç (for retroflex R) and Ñ (for nasal sound). To accurately represent Rohingya phonology, it also uses five accented vowels (áéíóú). It has been recognised by ISO with ISO 639-3 "rhg" code.
The Rohingya people practice Sunni Islam with elements of Sufism. The government restricts educational opportunities for them, many pursue fundamental Islamic studies as their only educational option. Mosques and madrasas are present in most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregations and women pray at home.
Human rights and refugee status
The Rohingya people have been described as "amongst the world's least wanted" and "one of the world's most persecuted minorities." The Rohingya are deprived of the right to free movement and of higher education They have been denied Burmese citizenship since the Burmese nationality law was enacted. They are not allowed to travel without official permission and were previously required to sign a commitment not to have more than two children, though the law was not strictly enforced. They are subjected to routine forced labour, typically a Rohingya man will have to give up one day a week to work on military or government projects, and one night for sentry duty. The Rohingya have also lost a lot of arable land, which has been confiscated by the military to give to Buddhist settlers from elsewhere in Myanmar.
According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya have suffered from human rights violations under the military dictatorship since 1978, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result. In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had assisted with the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps threatened this effort. In 2015, 140,000 Rohingyas remain in IDP camps after communal riots in 2012.
Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are unable to return because of the 2012 communal violence and fear of persecution. Bangladeshi government has reduced the amount of support for Rohingyas to prevent an outflow of refugees to Bangladesh. In February 2009, many Rohingya refugees were rescued by Acehnese sailors in the Strait of Malacca, after 21 days at sea.
Over the years, thousands of Rohingyas have also fled to Thailand. There have been charges that Rohingyas were shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees rescued in February 2009 by Indonesian authorities told that they were captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at sea.
Steps to repatriate Rohingya refugees began in 2005. In 2009, the government of Bangladesh announced that it will repatriate around 9,000 Rohingyas living in refugee camps inside the country back to Myanmar, after a meeting with Burmese diplomats. On 16 October 2011, the new government of Myanmar agreed to take back registered Rohingya refugees. However, Rakhine State riots in 2012 hampered the repatriation efforts.
On 29 March 2014, the Burmese government banned the word "Rohingya" and asked for registration of the minority as "Bengalis" in the 2014 Myanmar Census, the first in three decades. On 7 May 2014, the United States House of Representatives passed the United States House resolution on persecution of the Rohingya people in Burma that called on the government of Myanmar to end the discrimination and persecution. Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London suggest that the Myanmar government are in the final stages of an organised process of genocide against the Rohingya. Such viewpoints have been criticized for using loaded terms to gain megaphone attention. Mr Charles Petrie, a former top UN official in Myanmar, argues that "Today using the term, aside from being divisive and potentially incorrect, will only ensure that opportunities and options to try to resolve the issue to be addressed will not be available."
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rohingya people.|
- Leider, Jacques (2013). Rohingya: the name, the movement and the quest for identity (PDF). Myanmar Egress and the Myanmar Peace Center. pp. 204–255.
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- "Burma's Western Border as Reported by the Diplomatic Correspondence (1947 - 1975)" by Aye Chan
- International Center for Transitional Justice, Myanmar